Convict Lake

Hello I am typing this in April, about last October. It is weird to write these posts in the season opposite the one that was happening when I was really there. Before you say it, yes California has seasons, even temperate coastal California. “Everyone went to Tahoe this weekend” happens in the winter, for example, and also sometimes the summer. “Rain” alternates with “on fire.” And anyway, we lose and gain hours of daylight just like people in real America do.

I don’t know if I have an emotional cycle that grinds away so predictably because I grew up in a place with very clear seasons (football/sweater, snow, 10-foot high piles of dirty snow melting slowly in grocery store parking lots, going out to get the mail barefoot/getting heat stroke at Cedar Point). And like I said, the tragedy of leaving work in the dark vs. the giddy anticipation of leaving work with hours of daylight left on the clock would be enough differentiation for any melancholic knowledge worker absent wild swings in temperature and foliage color.

But anyway I think fall and spring have some things in common, so maybe it’s fine that it takes me six months to write one of these. This one is about LEAF PEEPING!



Inspired by Maia‘s pitch to car camp near these delicious golden aspens, Two Hondas Fit full of camping gear and skillets and canned wine and Anna, Skyler, Julia, Maia and I bore down upon Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierras, a lovely little place near the airport outside Mammoth.

Leaf Car #2 got a real late start due to reasons and so we ended up at our destination in the dark. Somehow we missed which of the 80+ campsites we’d be at, so we circled the campground in our Fit about a million times, increasingly tired and having to pee (and knowing once we found it we’d need to set up camp) before somehow finding Leaf Car #1. I forgot how (persistence? luck? looking harder?), but it didn’t involve phones. Pioneer style. We tried to quietly set up camp and got to sleep.


Saturday we had an agenda stacked with delights: day hike, hot spring, campfire food. In the times I remember to send myself to some “happy place” and count down from 50 this day is where I go.

Maia found a hike that was I N C R E D I B L Y scenic with relatively little distance and elevation change. I mean, the views were worth at least an 8-mile hike in, but we did not walk that far at all, not even close. Every time we came around a bend in the trail or crested a gentle pile of rocks we’d come upon another goddamned beautiful lake surrounded by photogenic goddamned granite in the foreground and snowy goddamned peaks in the distance. There were birds and fish and the snacks I’d brought (my favorite things ONLY!!) and the sky had those friendly puffy white clouds. It was like taking a little hike into a postcard. For example:

F***!!!!!!!!! WOW!

We took turns taking triumphant photos of each other and, in some cases, ourselves. It was honestly so beautiful I was giddy. This partly manifested as being unable to stop cussing. My relatively low level of general physical fitness (and the uh, elevation, yeah that was it) made even this stroll a bit of challenge, though.

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Stonedly, we ate snacks and walked around on the rocks with that antsy feeling kids seem to have sometimes, where you are just SO EXCITED to be somewhere and you DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR BODY so you just MOVE IT. Other times we just chilled and looked at the clouds and the water and took gulps of the air as if it could fortify us for the urban(ality) of our lives 48 hours hence (do you like that term I’m coining right now, I hate it). I think I started crying a little bit, I don’t know.

Back at the trailhead there was an incident with a bee?? I don’t remember. Something happened and we recovered and headed to some hot springs.

I don’t need to tell you where these are (if you are any good at Google, context clues, or asking me nicely, it’s easy enough to find out). I stuffed my day pack with canned beer and water, grabbed a towel, slipped on my water shoes, and headed down the boardwalk to get into a pool of very hot water in the middle of a huge valley surrounded on all sides by spectacular mountains. I was naked as the day I was born (if on that day the nurse put on a small hat, some ultralight water shoes, and sunglasses) and having a great time with my friends (pictured below, minus the one who took the picture, also a friend).

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fall drive

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Just about every time you see a picture of these particular hot springs you should remind yourself that dozens of other people are probably just cropped out of the shot. 🙂 Doesn’t make it any less fun as long as people behave and don’t litter or gawk too much imo. Sometimes you overhear some wild conversations; sometimes the conversations are dull. Just like the uh, seasons?

After drying off as best we could, we got back in the car and headed to the campground. It rained so hard!! We hung out in our cars for a little while, trying to wait it out, and then decided to head into the big city (Mammoth) to find a bit of gear and something to do. Maia had the line on a cozy place where I think we all had totchos and 2-3 house-made barrel-aged Manhattans each (Old Fashioneds? I always mix them up. Despite not being a bartender, ha ha!) On their website you are introduced to the philosophy of the place with an epigraph:



After a while the rain stopped and we had to get back to make our dinner and drink the rest of our wine by the campfire. On our way into the campground, the little general store beckoned with its siren song, which I hear as: ~stickers~~ ~postcards~~ ~~~salty snacks~~ !

I was much too high to handle Brian with any equanimity. Brian, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry but really, ACAB still stands.

That night we made a campfire and drank all the wine and had some food. It was serene.


Early on Sunday, Leaf Car #2, filled with the crew members taken down by illness in the night and bearing up but suffering in the autumn morning chill, headed west and home.

Maia and I stuck around to walk a loop around the lake and watch the golden aspens rattle in the wind.

Convict Lake (Wit-sa-nap) is one of the few lakes you can drive right up to (that’s not a reservoir) in the Sierras. The local tourism board claims it is “home to a monstrous brown trout named ‘Horgon’ that few have seen and no one has ever landed.” (Time to learn to fish!!) It’s called Convict Lake now because in 1879 some convicts escaped from Carson City (3 hours away with internal combustion engine), killing a few  and headed for the literal hills. A posse of locals cornered them at the lake, got in a shootout, and some of them died, including the guy the big mountain behind the lake is named after.

He’s buried on a hillside above a hot spring 40 miles east across the valley. I’ll write about that one someday maybe. The convicts were caught and hanged later. In 1990, three teenagers from a camp for “juvenile delinquents” — and four people who tried to rescue them — fell through the ice and drowned at the lake. That camp was shut down soon after for poor conditions. Something about the rural west shaped in the image of crime and of punishment, from shoot-outs to prisons propping up small-town economies, goes here.

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freakin weekend

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Maia and I stopped to scope out and soak in a few last hot springs before we left, adding to our stores of knowledge about which ones to bother with according to the size of your crew and tenacity of your car. On the drive home, it was possible to feel like the shorter days weren’t closing in on me mercilessly (Here is 11 minutes of Joe Pera to the rescue if you get that feeling too.) From here on the other side of winter, I can safely say I made it.

Lessons learned: If you’re gonna show up late, figure out what camp site you’re at! Actually that’s good to know in any camping situation! Try not to become sick when you’re sleeping on the ground.

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